Ethan Hawke: The Slick ‘Peacenik’ Bloodsucker of Daybreakers

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“That’s kind of a challenge: How do you play a peacenik vampire?”

Ethan Hawke’s played his fair share of vulnerable guys – I’m thinking first and foremost of the mopey lovelorn chap from Before Sunset, sulking as he sails down the river Seine – but the actor says nothing quite prepared him to stand at the center of Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers, opening in theaters Friday. “Vampire or no vampire, it’s strange to be the hero of an action film who’s essentially nonviolent. The whole thrust of action films are men who are cool because they have the power to hurt others, but not here. That’s why I think the film’s so interesting.” (More on Techland: The best characters of the decade)

I saw Daybreakers back before Christmas, and what has lingered with me most since is less an appreciation for its violence – of which there’s plenty – than its intellect. This is a smart movie, with details overflowing in the periphery – a thriller that uses vampire lore as a lens to analyze numerous issues confronting a modern society on the brink. And everything skews expectations. Hawke plays Edward – yep, another Edward – a blood scientist who really doesn’t want to be a vampire at all. His brother turned him so that he wouldn’t be hunted down by a vampire majority running low on its primary food supply: Humans. Now Edward is working desperately to find a blood substitute – something that will stave off the impending mass starvation. All around him, we see the details of a power structure built around a vampire society. No longer confined to the shadows, vampires walk the halls of power. They run the corporations. They lead the comfortable life.

Humanity no longer rouses during the day but at night, the biggest corporations are not oil companies but blood banks, and vampires are no longer predators but the homeless men lining the streets, holding up signs: “Will work for blood.”

That’s the kind of vampire flick this is – toying with all the traditional elements we’re used to. I loved seeing the vampires in suits and ties, as well as the vampires who break into houses in search of spare blood. I loved the vampire army, and the way that they go out on human reconnaissance missions. I like the way the movie deals with all those vampire conventions of wooden stakes, sunlight and mirrors. When Edward eventually teams up with the leaders of a human resistance, who think they have found a cure for vampirism, Daybreakers enters foreign territory altogether. I felt like I was seeing a whole new chapter unfold in the vampire canon.

And yet it all comes back to Hawke, the reluctant hero – the vampire who’s trying to figure out how he can help his fellow fanged brethren rise above their base instincts. We put six good questions to the man:

You were the first one to sign on board to this project, and then the likes of Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill followed. Were you nervous at all, about jumping into a genre movie like this? I think some people are going to be surprised to see you as a vampire….

I was just afraid of making a bad genre movie. It’s been a while since there was a decent B-movie, the vampire genre has been made so gentle. And honestly, I think it’s kind of remarkable when you see something like Twilight that my daughter is able to love, but I wanted to go out and make a fun R-rated vampire movie that is meant to be rated R.  The catch, though, with genre movies is that actors don’t really control the quality. You can contribute, but it’s really the directors that make a good genre movie. I had grown up reading comics and watching genre movies, and yet I had never really done one, but if you’re going to run around and chomp off vampire heads, you want it to be fun. (See Techland’s best sci-fi films of the decade)

The other reason I wanted to do this was that it was actually about something. It set out to make a point, and in that way it’s the best sort of genre film that has this sociopolitical current to it. This one’s about oil and health care and animal rights, about controlling medicine and the natural resources. It has the same sense of urgency that Gattaca had, and there’s a lot of things here to think about…

(Vote for Gattaca as one of the most underrated sci-fi masterpieces here)

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